Fever, muscle aches, runny nose, sore throat, and fatigue — flu symptoms can leave you feeling so bad that they stop you right in your tracks.
Unlike the common cold, the flu is a serious respiratory disease that can lead to potentially dangerous complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you do become infected, it’s important to take steps to prevent spreading the disease to others and keep your own symptoms from getting worse.
How do you treat the flu at home? Since the flu is caused by a virus, taking antibiotics won’t help. It may take a week or two to get back on your feet, advises the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
In the meantime, there are several things you can do to make yourself more comfortable, says Christopher Ohl, MD, professor of infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“Most people who get the flu can help ease their symptoms by getting plenty of rest, and staying well-hydrated with fluids,” Dr. Ohl says. Drinking water, broth, sports drinks, or electrolyte beverages can prevent you from becoming dehydrated. Allowing yourself to rest, especially while you have a fever, also gives your body the strength it needs to fight the virus.
Ohl adds that taking an over-the-counter anti-fever medicine such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as Motrin or Aleve, can also help reduce aches and pains.
Other non-prescription medications, such as decongestants, cough suppressants, and expectorants, can help treat various flu symptoms. But make sure you’re not using more than one medication with the same active ingredient to avoid a potentially dangerous overdose, the DHHS cautions.
Never give medication with aspirin to children or teenagers with a virus. Aspirin has been linked to a serious illness known as Reye's syndrome in young people who are recovering from a virus, like the flu or chickenpox, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
It’s also important to stay home from work or school until you are fever-free for at least 24 hours to avoid spreading the flu to others, Ohl says.
The CDC and the DHHS have these additional tips for managing your flu symptoms:
- Apply a cool, damp washcloth to your forehead, arms, and legs to reduce discomfort associated with fever.
- Put a humidifier in your room to make breathing easier.
- Gargle with warm salt water to soothe a sore throat.
- Stop smoking, which could worsen your flu symptoms, and avoid any secondhand smoke.
- Avoid drinking alcohol while you are recovering from the flu to prevent dehydration.
- If you must go out to visit the doctor or receive medical care, wear a face mask or cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough and sneeze.
- Wash your hands often to prevent spreading flu to others.
Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to help treat the flu. Antiviral medications can shorten the length of your illness and make symptoms milder. They can also reduce your risk of flu complications, which is why these drugs are often recommended for people who are at high risk, such as children, older adults, and people with certain pre-existing conditions.
Antivirals come in the form of pills, liquid medication, and inhaled medication. They prevent the virus from spreading in your body.
Antiviral medications recommended for treating the flu in the United States include:
- Tamiflu (Oseltamivir), which is approved to prevent and treat certain flu infections in people as young as 2 weeks of age.
- Relenza (Zanamivir), which is approved to treat certain flu infections in people ages 7 and older, and prevent certain flu infections in people ages 5 and older. This inhaled powder should not be taken by anyone with a respiratory condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Rapivab (Peramivir), which is approved to treat adults with the flu. It's given intravenously for 15 to 30 minutes.
“Antiviral medication might shorten the duration of symptoms somewhat, but in order for them to be effective, they need to be started in the first two days of illness,” Ohl notes. If you think you’ve been exposed to the flu, contact your doctor as soon as possible after getting sick to find out if antivirals are an option for you. Depending on the flu season, your doctor may recommend one antiviral medication over another.
The best flu treatment is prevention. Getting an annual flu shot is the first line of defense against flu viruses. These viruses are constantly changing, so the vaccine is updated based on which flu viruses are making people sick, how they are spreading, and how well the previous year’s vaccine protected against these viruses, the CDC reports.
Additional reporting by Mary Elizabeth Dallas.